Today witnesses the long-awaited return of an alternative-radio behemoth who sold millions of albums, a band that was once hailed as the"next big thing" but kind of went away, and now is releasing a new album, hoping to recapture a little of the original mojo. If you somehow missed the headline, you might have thought I was talking about Irish egoistes U2 (whose HRC-salutingNo Line on the Horizon comes out today), but no, I'm speaking of The Prodigy, the UK combo that, along with The Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk, broke through the grunge-rock hegemony with a crowd-pleasing brand of arena-techno in the mid-to-late '90s. However, among their "Electronica" comrades, The Prodigy is a unique concept: a one-man band with roots deep in the UK underground rave scene that became, depending on your perspective, cynical sellouts, a fun show to see in between Foo Fighters and Oasis concerts, or a brilliantly successful KLF-style theatrical art-prank. Their new album, the charmingly titled Invaders Must Die, bugs me, but I'm not sure it's terrible, and the wild mix of reviews confirms the band's slippery meaning.
On the one hand, to even the most patient fan of hardcore electronic noise (hi there!), Invaders is cartoonishly brutal. There are song titles like "Warrior's Dance" and "Run With the Wolves"—is Robert Bly a co-writer? Rolling Stonecorrectly identifies the album's sound as "pummeling, vacuous rave noise," and ascribes the ridiculously thumpy title track to the same empty posturing that brought us 1997's controversial "Smack My Bitch Up." They give the album 1 1/2 out of 5 stars. On the other end of the spectrum, Spinlooks kindly on the band's "anthemic breakbeat spazz," acknowledging that it's "retro" but giving props to founder/producer/everything-but-dancer-and-screamer Liam Howlett's programming skills and awareness of musical history, offering 4/5 stars. Pitchfork comes right down the middle with a 5.8/10 review, calling the more sonically extreme sections of the album "lunkheaded," but hearing echoes of the band's first album, 1992's ravey, silly, and wildly enjoyable Experience.
Say what you will, but 12 years ago, "Firestarter" and "Smack My Bitch Up" were genuinely shocking, electronic experiments with roots in drum 'n' bass joined to a winking, neo-Sex Pistols aethetic. "Bitch," especially, was an arrow to the heart of the zeitgeist—its Electro Ultramagnetic MCs sample came at a moment when the argument over hip-hop's use of violent, sexist imagery was just starting to boil, and only turned up the heat. Were the original lyrics sung in character, and did the recontextualization of that line enhance or remove its original meaning? It seemed like a fascinating question at the time, but the music hasn't aged well: like Eminem, The Prodigy were once indispensable for the party DJ, but I can't remember the last time I've played one of their songs.
Ultimately, 17 years removed from his underground roots, Howlett's tunes have strayed too far from their creative mulch. If you're a "300"-loving bro or a System of a Down fan looking for pummeling, rowdy drum 'n' bass, Pendulum have taken up that mantle with gusto. On the other hand, with wobbly, weird retro-rave sounds currently in vogue across the underground dance music spectrum, The Prodigy have been overtaken on that front too. Invaders Must Die is intermittently enjoyable, but ultimately, its greatest failing is that it's completely inessential.
Invaders Must Die is out now on the band's own label, Take Me To the Hospital.
The Prodigy - "Omen" (from Invaders Must Die)
The Prodigy - "Out of Space" (from Experience, 1992)